Do us a favor—open this photo of a solid black square and focus on your screen. We’ll wait.
Yes, we know—your screen is gross.
Before you give into your impulses and wipe your screen with whatever you have at hand, let us stop you right there. Your display is way more delicate than you think, and if you want it to last a long time in optimal conditions, you’ll need to treat it with proper love and care.
The good news is that cleaning a computer screen is more simple than you think. You only need a soft cloth, a tiny bit of water, and the most delicate of touches.
Know your screen
As you would expect, not all screens are created equal, and some are more delicate than others. The safest way to figure out the proper care for your screen is to search for the make and model of your device, find out if it has an LCD, LED, or some other type of display, and search for the manufacturer’s instructions on how to care for it.
If you want to skip all that, there’s an easy way to avoid making a mistake that might not only result in irreparable damage to your screen but to your entire device. According to Joe Silverman, owner of New York Computer Help, a tech repair center in New York City, no matter how much money you spent on your computer or tablet, it probably has an LED or an LCD screen if you bought it within the last three years—and neither type benefits from window cleaner or highly concentrated alcohol.
“You really don’t want to use anything that’s going to dilute the reflective coating of your screen,” Silverman says.
That’s the uppermost layer of your screen, which is extremely sensitive to the acidity in alcohol and in compounds like ammonia or propylene glycol. These are often present in cleaning agents such as window cleaners and degreasers. Using these liquids will corrode the surface of your screen, resulting in scratches or even smudges you won’t be able to get rid of.
And if that doesn’t sound bad enough, think about what happens when the protective layer is completely ruined.
“Underneath there it’s the most intelligent part of the laptop,” Silverman explains. “What happens is that the liquid will get through that first line of defense, and when it does that it’s going to really affect the sensors.”
Things get even trickier when you’re dealing with touchscreens. On models like the Microsoft Surface, the display is the main input—as opposed to your mouse or trackpad on a regular laptop—so it’s ultra-sensitive, Silverman says. Using a strong liquid cleaner like a degreaser or a bleach-based disinfectant can obliterate the top layer on the screen. Combine that with high pressure, and you can kiss your fancy touchscreen computer goodbye.
Another downside to newer computers is their size and weight. If you decided to splurge on a new laptop, for example, you probably found one that has top-notch components, but also a slick, lightweight design. This format is only possible if everything in your laptop is smaller and thinner. In the case of your display, a thinner screen means a weaker barrier between your computer’s guts and the elements in the outside world.
Ok, but how do I actually clean a computer screen?
Caring for your screen is simple—it only takes a little bit of water and a dust-free cloth, such as a microfiber wipe or the piece of fabric that came with your glasses.
First, turn off your computer and disconnect the charger. This might sound paranoid, but the benefit is twofold—you avoid any chance of triggering an electrical surge, and your screen will remain black, which will make it easier to see any dirt and grime.
Pour a couple drops of water on your cloth. Forget paper towels or the sleeve of that soft cotton t-shirt you love—microfiber is your best bet. Still, no matter how soft it is, a dry wipe could always leave micro-abrasions on your screen. The moisture will also help gather dust and particles while lifting grease from your display.
Use circular motions starting in the center of your screen and moving outward, so you don’t leave any streaks. If you can see any droplets or water traces on the glass while you clean, you’ve used way too much water. Gently dab the residual H2O with an absorbent cloth or tissue paper and start again.
If you’re dealing with next-level gunk, you can use isopropyl alcohol at 70 percent or lower, Silverman says. “That percentage is very important,” he explains. “We’d only use 90 percent or higher on dummy parts that don’t have sensors, like top cases and keyboards.” In these extreme cases, spray the alcohol on the cloth, never directly on the screen, and wipe it gently.
Screen care is like skincare
Just like solar damage, screen damage is cumulative. The more pressure you apply, the more abrasive a product you use, and the more often you use it, the greater the damage you’re inflicting on the protective layer of your display and the delicate sensors underneath it.
Maybe you can get away with using a high percentage of alcohol or even a window cleaner on your computer screen once or twice. But if you keep at it, eventually you’ll see the deleterious effects.
“You’ll see discoloration, lines (vertical and horizontal); sometimes it looks pretty and rainbow-like,” Silverman says. “Sometimes it’ll blink and sometimes you’ll see droplets of water or liquid in the back of the screen. There’s a lot of ways in which damage appears.”
And here is the bad news: you cannot fix it. The only way to get rid of that damage is to replace the screen.
The best way to avoid damaging your screen while cleaning it is to simply keep it from getting dirty in the first place. If you have a laptop, cover the keyboard with a thin microfiber cloth before closing it to prevent finger grease from transferring to the screen. If you have a touchscreen, wash your hands often before you use it, but make sure you let your hands dry completely before you start tapping—the soapy water or liquid hand cleanser from your fingers can easily end up on the screen and corrode it.
Wet, newly washed hands can also be detrimental to regular computers. Silverman says he often sees such victims in his shop—computers completely dead after hand sanitizer rubbed off the owner’s hands, seeped through the keyboard, and ruined the inner guts of the machine.
How to care for a phone screen
Your phone was designed to be carried, dropped, tapped, swiped, smashed against your face for long periods of time, and stowed in the deepest corners of your bag. In other words, its screen is way more resilient than your computer’s.
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Silverman explains that most iPhones and Samsung phones, for example, have screens made out of one thick piece of glass. These, as opposed to computer screens, have all the LCD layers fused together, making them much more difficult to damage. Still, if you’re using alcohol, he recommends keeping the concentration at 70 percent or lower, using a soft cloth, and applying only low pressure to get rid of any accumulated gunk there.
Be especially careful with charging ports, as contact with water (also present in rubbing alcohol) can damage the electronics inside your smartphone. Newer models often are resistant to liquids, but there’s always a threshold to how much they can withstand. And you probably don’t want to know what that is.
Replacing the screen of your computer or smartphone can be expensive, and even if that’s not an issue for you, no one wants their devices to fail when they need them the most. So remember these tips well—we hope you never have to read this article again.
This story has been updated. It was originally posted on October 13, 2021.